Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Deaf Ears: U.S. Public Diplomacy and Iran

    Wednesday, December 14, 2011   No comments

Trevor Thrall

Last week, the United States announced the creation of Virtual Embassy Tehran [3], an informational web site aimed at the Iranian public. According to Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, the site’s central purpose is to provide a bridge between the United States and the Iranian people. As the web site explains, “the absence of an American presence in Iran (since the 1979 hostage crisis) means we have little opportunity to make our voice heard to a broader Iranian audience.” 

The site follows on the heels of Persian-language efforts by the State Department on YouTube [4], Facebook [5] and Twitter [6]. State gets points for making an effort to keep up with the times and putting the web and social media to work for the cause of public diplomacy. And though the site itself is quite bland and uninspiring, there is certainly nothing wrong with making it easier for world publics to learn about the United States.

Excitement over the Internet aside, however, the Virtual Embassy Tehran is a product of the same failed public diplomacy paradigm that the United States has pursued since 9/11. As such, it reflects the persistent inability of the U.S. government to recognize the basic tenets of the modern global communications landscape and the unwillingness of officials to acknowledge the limits of persuasion.

Campaigns like Virtual Embassy Tehran reflect on outmoded conception of the global public sphere. Officials appear to think that the virtual embassy (along with similar efforts in the region such as Radio Farda [7], Radio Sawa [8] and Al-Hurra [9]) will replicate the glory days of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. The theory is straightforward: the Iranian public is suffering from oppression and censorship at the hands of a totalitarian government. Starved for information about the world, Iranians will seek information from alternative sources. When they realize that the alternative sources (i.e. Virtual Embassy Tehran) provide more accurate and useful information than that available from their own government, Iranians will begin to trust those sources and turn to them in ever greater numbers. Eventually this will give the United States the ability to shape the marketplace of ideas in Iran.


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